Wednesday, June 28, 2017

troika

Yes, so it is; and that went farther and farther with all sorts of variations. My God! when I remember all my cowardly acts and bad deeds, I am frightened. And I remember that 'me' who, during that period, was still the butt of his comrades’ ridicule on account of his innocence.

And when I hear people talk of the gilded youth, of the officers, of the Parisians, and all these gentlemen, and myself, living wild lives at the age of thirty, and who have on our consciences hundreds of crimes toward women, terrible and varied, when we enter a parlor or a ball-room, washed, shaven, and perfumed, with very white linen, in dress coats or in uniform, as emblems of purity, oh, the disgust! There will surely come a time, an epoch, when all these lives and all this cowardice will be unveiled!

So, nevertheless, I lived, until the age of thirty, without abandoning for a minute my intention of marrying, and building an elevated conjugal life; and with this in view I watched all young girls who might suit me. I was buried in rottenness, and at the same time I looked for virgins, whose purity was worthy of me!
Lev Tolstoy, "The Kreutzer Sonata," Chapter VI
But these are all golden dreams. Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else, and we all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests, consequently, so to say, through necessity, he would begin doing good? Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child! Why, in the first place, when in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interest? What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, CONSCIOUSLY, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, wilfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness. So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage.... Advantage! What is advantage? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect accuracy in what the advantage of man consists? And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, SOMETIMES, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous. And if so, if there can be such a case, the whole principle falls into dust.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground, Chapter VII
We are all exceptional cases. We all want to appeal against something! Each of us insists on being innocent at all cost, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself. You won’t delight a man by complimenting him on the efforts by which he has become intelligent or generous. On the other hand, he will beam if you admire his natural generosity. Inversely, if you tell a criminal that his crime is not due to his nature or his character but to unfortunate circumstances, he will be extravagantly grateful to you. During the counsel’s speech, this is the moment he will choose to weep. Yet there is no credit in being honest or intelligent by birth. Just as one is surely no more responsible for being a criminal by nature than for being a criminal by circumstance. But those rascals want grace, that is, irresponsibility, and they shamelessly allege the justifications of nature or the excuses of circumstances, even if they are contradictory. The essential thing is that they should be innocent, that their virtues, by grace of birth, should not be questioned and that their misdeeds, born of a momentary misfortune, should never be more than provisional. As I told you, it’s a matter of dodging judgment. Since it is hard to dodge it, tricky to get one’s nature simultaneously admired and excused, they all strive to be rich. Why? Did you ever ask yourself? For power, of course. But especially because wealth shields from immediate judgment, takes you out of the subway crowd to enclose you in a chromium-plated automobile, isolates you in huge protected lawns, Pullmans, first-class cabins. Wealth, cher ami, is not quite acquittal, but reprieve, and that’s always worth taking.
Albert Camus, The Fall

Which is to say, I'm reading Camus now (re-reading, I guess, since I first read The Fall back in the 80s) and yesterday late afternoon I realized that I've encountered this sort of narrative before--this tone of voice and this direct engagement of the protagonist with the reader--in Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (both of which writers Camus had read). My experience this time around with The Fall is less happy than I think it was when I first read it, and I admit that I think less of this book than I do of The Stranger or The Plague. That latter book may well be Camus' real masterpiece, a restrained and beautiful novel.

2 comments:

  1. I have just been looking at St. Augustine's Confessions: he doesn't spend any time insisting on his innocence or anyone else's.

    As for Tolstoy, I think of Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence: "There was certain triteness in these reflections: they were those habitual to young men on the approach of their wedding day. But they were generally accompanied by a compunction and a sense of self-abasement of which Newland Archer felt no trace. He could not deplore (as Thackeray's heroes had so often exasperated him by doing) that he had not a blank page to offer his bride in exchange for the unblemished one she was to give him. He could not get away from the fact that if he had been brought up as she had they would have been no more fit to find their way about than the Babes in the Wood..." Tolstoy in his puritanical mode can be hard to bear.

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    1. Augustine knew we're all sinners! I think my three excerpts are in the voices of the lost, the very loud and insistent lost. I am reminded of a guy I know who, at every family gathering, must make a speech before the meal to establish his moral superiority over everyone else present, usually a speech in the form of an energetic straw-man argument. His fundamental misunderstandings of God and faith are pretty well known within the family by now.

      I agree with Chekhov that "The Kreutzer Sonata" is a horrible story, a vile thing. Camus redeems himself at the end of The Fall, though of course his narrator remains in hell.

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